How to eat less meat
- June 11, 2008
Putting Meat Back in Its Place
By MARK BITTMAN
LET'S suppose you've decided to eat less meat, or are considering
it. And let's ignore your reasons for doing so. They may be
economic, ethical, altruistic, nutritional or even irrational. The
arguments for eating less meat are myriad and well-publicized, but
at the moment they're irrelevant, because what I want to address
here is (almost) purely pragmatic: How do you do it?
I'm not talking about eating no meat; I'm talking about cutting
back, which in some ways is harder than quitting. Vegetarian recipes
and traditions are everywhere. But in the American style of eating
with meat usually at the center of the plate it can be difficult
to eat two ounces of beef and call it dinner.
Cutting back on meat is not an isolated process. Unlike, say, taking
up meditation or exercise, it usually has consequences for others.
The keys are to keep at least some of your decisions personal so
they affect no one but yourself and, when they do affect others,
minimize the pain and don't preach. (No one likes a proselytizer.)
On the other hand, don't apologize; by serving your friends or
family less meat you're certainly doing them no harm, and may be
doing them good as long as what you serve is delicious, and that's
Reducing the meat habit can be done, and it doesn't have to make you
crazy. Although there will undoubtedly be times you'll have
cravings, they'll never give you the shakes. So, in no particular
order, here are some suggestions to ease your path to eating less
1. Forget the protein thing. Roughly simultaneously with your
declaration that you're cutting back on meat, someone will ask "How
are you going to get enough protein?" The answer is "by being
omnivorous." Plants have protein, too; in fact, per calorie, many
plants have more protein than meat. (For example, a cheeseburger
contains 14.57 grams of protein in 286 calories, or about .05 grams
of protein per calorie; a serving of spinach has 2.97 grams of
protein in 23 calories, or .12 grams of protein per calorie; lentils
have .07 grams per calorie.) By eating a variety, you can get all
essential amino acids.
You also don't have to eat the national average of a half-pound of
meat a day to get enough protein. On average, Americans eat about
twice as much as the 56 grams of daily protein recommended by the
United States Department of Agriculture (a guideline that some
nutritionists think is too high). For anyone eating a well-balanced
diet, protein is probably not an issue.
2. Buy less meat. How many ounces of meat is a serving? For years,
the U.S.D.A.'s recommendation has been four ounces a person, yet
most of us have long figured one-and-a-half to two pounds of meat is
the right amount for four people. (Our per capita consumption of
meat hasn't changed much over the years, and remains at about a half-
pound a day.) Change that amount, and both your cooking style and
the way the plate looks will change, and quickly.
Remember that most traditional styles of cooking use meat as a
condiment or a treat. This is true in American frontier cooking,
where salt pork and bacon were used to season beans; in Italy, where
a small piece of meat is served as a secondo (rarely more than a few
ounces, even in restaurants); and around the world, where bits of
meat are added to stir-fries and salads, as well as bean, rice and
noodle dishes. In all of these cases, meat is seen as a treasure,
not as something to be gobbled up as if it were air.
For many of us who grew up in the United States in the last 60
years, this is the toughest hurdle. The message (remember "Beef:
it's what's for dinner"?) was in our psyche from before we could
hold a fork. We may have vegetarian nights, or seafood nights, but
when we have meat nights, there's often a big piece of meat (or
poultry) on the plate, with starch and vegetable to the side.
3. Get it out of the center of the plate.
You don't have to jump into utterly unfamiliar territory; just try
tweaking the proportions a bit. You might start by buying skinnier
pork chops, or doling out smaller slices of steak .
Build the meal around what you used to consider side dishes not
only vegetables, but also grains, beans, salads and even dessert, if
you consider fruit a dessert rather than the meat. Nearly every
culture has dishes in which meat is used to season rice or another
grain. Consider dirty rice, fried rice, pilaf, biryani, arroz con
pollo: the list is almost endless.
Similarly, there isn't a country in the world that cooks legumes
that doesn't toss a little meat in now and then. And mentioning stir-
fries and pasta dishes here seems almost too obvious.
But you need not go transcultural. When you make stew, soup or
another dish with many ingredients, you make a decision about its
main ingredient and about the quantity of that ingredient. If you
think of meat stews or soups, chicken pot pie, even lasagna, you'll
quickly recognize that the decision to load them up with meat or to
use meat as an ingredient of equal importance to the others is
The same is true when you're grilling. Compare these
statements: "We're grilling a leg of lamb and throwing a few
vegetables on there," and "We're grilling vegetables and breads, and
will throw a few chunks of lamb on there." Again, if you see the
meat as a treasure, things change.
4. Buy more vegetables, and learn new ways to cook them.
If you're a good cook, you already know you can make a meal out of
pretty much anything. If you open your refrigerator and it's stocked
with vegetables, that's what you're going to cook. You'll augment
the vegetables with pantry items: pasta, rice, beans, cheese, eggs,
good canned fish, bacon, even a small amount of meat. We're not
discussing vegetarianism, remember?
If you're not a good cook, you have the opportunity to learn how to
cook in what could turn out to be the style of the future.
5. Make nonmeat items as convenient as meat. There is a myth, even
among experienced cooks, that few things are as convenient as meat.
And while there's no arguing that grilling, broiling or pan-grilling
a steak or chop is fast, it's equally true that almost no one
considers such a preparation a one-dish meal.
By thinking ahead, and working ahead, you can make cooking
vegetables as convenient as what in India is often called "non-veg."
Spend an hour or two during the course of the week precooking all
the nonmeat foods you think take too long for fast dinners.
Store cooked beans in the refrigerator or freezer and reheat as
needed, with seasonings. Keeping precooked beans in the freezer will
change your cooking habits more easily than any other simple
Reheat cooked whole grains (the microwave is good for this) for
breakfast with milk or dinner with savory seasonings. Wash tender
greens and store in a salad spinner, covered bowl, or plastic bag.
Most other vegetables can be poached, shocked in ice water, drained,
and served cold or reheated in any fashion you like sautéed
quickly in butter, steamed, grilled or made into a gratin or
something equally substantial.
6. Make some rules. Depending on your habits, it may be no bacon at
breakfast; it may be no burgers at lunch; it may be no fast food,
ever; it may be "eat a salad instead of a sandwich three times a
week," or "eat a vegetarian dinner three times a week." It may mean
meatless Fridays. It may mean (this is essentially what I do)
meatless breakfasts and lunches and all-bets-are-off dinners.
7. Look at restaurant menus differently. If you're cutting back on
meat, there are three restaurant strategies. Two are easy, and one
is hard, but probably the most important.
The first: go to restaurants that don't feature meat-heavy dishes.
It's harder to go overboard eating at most Asian restaurants, and
traditional Italian is fairly safe also.
The second: Once in a while, forget the rules and pledges, and eat
like a real American; obviously you can't do this every time, but
it's an option.
The third is the tricky one: Remember you're doing this voluntarily,
for whatever reasons seem important to you (or at least seemed,
until you were confronted with the lamb shanks on the menu). Then
order from the parts of the menu that contain little or no meat:
salads, sides, soups and (often, anyway) appetizers. If all else
fails, offer to share a meat course among two or even three or four
people; many restaurant entrees are too big anyway.
I distinctly remember (no great feat; it was just over a year ago),
the first time I was in a restaurant and ordered two salads and a
bowl of soup.
My companion, who had long known me as a meat-first kind of guy,
The waiter asked, "How would you like that served?" And then life
went on as usual. Wasn't bad at all.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company